For our immune system to be considered optimally healthy, we need it to be active properly against a foreign invader, e.g., immunosurveillant and then be able to destroy the pathogen, but not inappropriately active for too long a period of time, which causes chronic inflammation. We also need an immune system that is not suppressed, otherwise it cannot recognize foreign invaders to eliminate them. Thus, immunomodulation is when the immune system is properly responding in its intensity, frequency, and duration to protect you, the host organism. Within our body, immunomodulation may involve increasing or decreasing the activation of specialized cells, antibodies, or other proteins (e.g., cytokines and growth factors) to keep you optimally healthy. Through a large and expanding body of research, we now know that nutrition is the key factor in keeping the immune system healthy and enabling the process of immunomodulation effectively. While exercise, stress management, a suitable amount and quality of sleep, not using tobacco, and limiting the intake of alcohol are all essential, proper nutrition is the number one factor for achieving and sustaining a healthy immune system.
In particular, several nutrients have been shown to have profound effects on helping to achieve a strong and functional immune system. For example, vitamin C has been extensively studied, particularly for the purpose of the prevention of colds or to lessen the symptoms of colds and other infections. As with all vitamins, C is essential, meaning that our body cannot synthesize it, so we must obtain it from the diet. Vitamin C has been shown to be a potent antioxidant, scavenges free radicals (lessening our oxidative stress load), and it is an enzyme cofactor for synthesizing other molecules. The research is still uncovering how vitamin C interacts with the immune system. One recent study showed that at the genetic level vitamin C had wide-ranging effects on macrophage, our first line of immune system defense, which is crucial for counteracting pathogens of all types. Vitamin C was found in another study to enhance the production of interleukin-17 by Th17 immune cells that are highly involved in autoimmune and inflammatory diseases. An additional study showed that vitamin C enhanced the function of neutrophils, which are another key immune cell type in response to foreign invaders. By improving the functioning of neutrophils, the overall immune response is enhanced as well. Vitamin C in the form of ascorbic acid has been shown to dramatically increase the number of natural killer cells with no negative effect on their functioning. Thus, vitamin C seems to have beneficial effects on multiple components of the immune system, but much work remains to be done to definitively determine these interactions.
Zinc is a mineral that has been identified as necessary in multiple metabolic activities. Like vitamin C, it is essential, so it must be attained from the diet. Zinc deficiency is known to be detrimental in many ways, including a dysfunctional immune system. Zinc is commonly thought to be beneficial for shortening the duration of common colds, but its effects on the immune system are still being determined. A combination of data from several different studies showed a beneficial relationship between the number of daily dosages of zinc gluconate and the average length of time of common colds. So, how does zinc help this happen? A very recent study showed that zinc influences the signaling pathways in B cells, which are another important component of the immune system. More specifically, the interaction between CD40 and CD154 are crucial for normal immune functioning. Zinc deficiency impairs a particular type of phosphorylation, a molecular function important for many cellular processes, in the CD40-CD154 interaction. Through a complex series of analyses, CD40 was shown to be the target molecule for zinc in enhancing B cell and hence overall immune function. Thus, this helps to explain exactly how zinc improves the functioning of our immune system. A recent review highlighted how zinc also acts as a transporter and signaler of the T and B cells of the immune system, so it has complex relationships that greatly depend on you having a sufficient level of zinc. Otherwise, zinc deficiency leads to a greater risk of different types of infections.
Honey has long been used as a remedy for various ailments. What does the research suggest about honey’s effectiveness in combatting conditions and improving the immune system? One recent study showed that honey was effective in improving healing time and reducing inflammation in alveolar osteitis, a complication of tooth extraction leaving the bone inflamed. In this particular study, the tooth socket healed faster and C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation, went down rather dramatically. A recent review paper showed that many different types of honey were able to stimulate monocytes, an immune system cell, to release tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α), a protein that is used to signal the body to heal an injury or in the event of infection. Honey has also been shown to be effective in healing wounds, according to a recent study in rats, as those infected with MRSA showed significant bacterial growth inhibition, stimulation of the immune system response, and positively enhanced wound repair. Given the anti-bacterial resistance that MRSA commonly has, a natural product like honey could prove to be an effective alternative to conventional treatment. Similarly, another study showed that different types of honey stimulated TNF-α and other inflammatory markers called cytokines, interleukin-1β and interleukin-6, from human monocytes, key immune system cells, suggesting that honey may improve wound healing at least partially by this stimulation effect. Additionally, another study showed that specific nutrients in honey, called glycoproteins and glycopeptides, were able to affect different components of the immune system through multiple anti-inflammatory markers.
Like honey, propolis has also been used for hundreds of years to treat many conditions and disorders. Propolis has a complex chemical composition, and only a few of those compounds have been studied to determine their exact biological activities, meaning that their synergistic effects are even more unknown. Nonetheless, studies have shown that propolis generally stimulates the immune system and pluripotent adult stem cell production and activates the thymus gland, which is a very important part of the immune system, where our T cells mature. Similar to honey, propolis has also been found to increase TNF-α production by resting human monocyte cells. Propolis in combination with other phenols showed additional immune system improvements. Propolis has also been determined to enhance the maturation and function of dendritic cells, which are very important cells of the immune system that work with our T cells to counteract foreign invaders. Dendritic cells are involved in the first steps of any immune system response, so their proper functioning is very important to our overall wellbeing. More specifically, propolis activated dendritic cells, which then produced TNF-α, interleukin-6, interleukin-10, and another important immune marker called nuclear factor-κB, in the presence of an infectious agent, lipopolysaccharide. Thus, propolis demonstrated unique activity on dendritic cells, which could lead to other ways of investigating how to improve the overall immune response through its immunomodulatory function.
Garlic has also been used by humans as a traditional medicine for millennia. Garlic is assumed to be healthy, as it is used for many different ailments and disorders. Garlic oil contains many constituents that have been studied for their health effects, but the information on their exact effects on the immune system is limited and much of the research has been done in animals. Nonetheless, one study showed that injection of garlic oil into a tumor resulted in an increase in the number of macrophage, neutrophils, and lymphocytes, all key cells of the immune system. Several garlic oil components were shown to have differential effects on TNF-α, interleukin-1β, interleukin-6, and interleukin-10 in stimulated macrophages and were also found to decrease nitric oxide production, which is beneficial over a long period of time. While acute nitric oxide production is necessary, too high levels over time may be detrimental to health. Garlic oil was shown to have a dual effect on Th1-Th2 immune system cell balance, i.e., an increased T cell response of the Th1 type at low doses and the Th2 type at high doses. Keeping these two components of the immune system in balance is crucial for preventing autoimmune disorders and also ensuring that the immune system responds properly to pathogens. Overall, these results, among others, suggest that garlic oil has a net anti-inflammatory effect that is important for immune system function.
In summary, the importance of the immune system to your health cannot be overstated. Proper immune function is literally the difference between life and death. A healthy immune system keeps you free of infection from foreign invaders in the short-term and works with other organ systems to keep you free from chronic disease over the course of your life. Optimal nutrition is the key to keeping your immune system healthy and capable of counteracting the insults to your health. Certain key nutrients mentioned in this article, i.e., vitamin C, zinc, honey, propolis, and garlic oil, can be important parts of your nutritional approach to an optimally functioning immune system and overall great health. Many studies have been conducted with these particular nutrients showing a wide range of benefits. Although many of the exact mechanisms of action on the immune system are still unknown, the results so far demonstrate the power of nutrition to enhance health. Thus, using these nutrients alone or in some combination may be effective for improving the status of your immune system. Remember that you also need to eat a mostly plant-based diet, engage in (almost) daily exercise, get plenty of sleep, manage your stress, and have an overall positive outlook to keep your immune system strong. Keep reading my articles to help you stay healthy!
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